Ann Dumas and Christopher Lloyd describe installing an exhibition of works on paper as a battlefield. Just a couple of weeks away from the opening, they are in the midst of overseeing the hanging of 77 impressionist and Post-Impressionist works on paper. They still need to add the labels and adjust the lighting: “The galleries right now are like a war zone with open cases all over the place. The process is very scientifically led. It takes a skilful army of installers and paper conservators to unpack the pieces, write condition reports, and check for damages. But it’s wonderful to see all the hard work go up on the walls.” Christopher adds “One of the joys of this stage, apart from seeing the individual works for the first time, is achieving the overarching argument of the exhibition. This project started when we presented our case to the Board, and it is now the moment of truth.”
Impressionists on Paper aims to highlight Impressionism as an avant-garde movement through works on paper. The curators are interested in depicting the wide range of materials and support of these works and how they serve as the background for what was happening stylistically “This combination gave artists a huge range of freedom of expression and adventure. It’s an intimate exhibition, a big contrast from Marina Abramović…we have nudity too, but not quite the same!”
This is the first exhibition Ann and Christopher have co-curated, despite having known each other for many years. Their backgrounds differ: Ann studied Art History at the Courtauld Institute and wrote her thesis on Edgar Degas. She spent 12 years working in NYC at the Guggenheim, Metropolitan Museum of Art, and Brooklyn Museum. Ann then returned to London and has worked on shows at the National Gallery, Metropolitan Museum of Art, and currently the Royal Academy, and Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. Christopher, on the other hand, has never studied Art History. He read History at Oxford University and was lucky enough to become the assistant curator to a leading art historian and dealer from whom he “learned everything about the handling of drawings, hanging of pictures, and museum practice.” He then worked at the Ashmolean Museum for 20 years in increasingly senior roles. It was there that he discovered his fondness for Impressionism when he was asked to handle a collection of Pissarro works, including 400 drawings, and “fell in love with it.”
The idea for the show came about three years ago: “We had some reservations because it’s very difficult to borrow works on paper. Due to their fragile nature, museums are reluctant to have those works travel.” Despite big financial setbacks due to the pandemic, and the rise of shipping costs meaning they couldn’t borrow from American collections, they gathered a total of 77 works. While the show includes big names like Degas and Cezanne, it also presents lesser-known but contributing artists including Frederico Zandomeneghi, Jean-Louis Forain, and Armand Guillaumin, and among them women artists Mary Cassatt, Eva Gonzalès, and Berthe Morisot.
On working with works on paper, Ann and Christopher note: “The light levels need to be as low as 50 lux and there is tremendous care in the packaging. For example, the pastels can’t have any vibrations. These are very well-known artists, but you don’t see their works on paper much. Unlike paintings, they’re only ever on display for temporary exhibitions so they are rarely seen.”
Of the artworks presented, both curators have a favourite. For Ann, it’s a marvellous work by Degas entitled Dancer Yawning, 1873, with a single dancer stretching and yawning. The most striking thing about it is it’s on green paper.” Christopher’s chosen work is by Edouard Manet, The Rue Mosnier in the Rain, 1878: “The work shows a street view from a studio. The style is linear with dark ink, influenced by Japanese art. It’s like being in Paris. Hopefully, with this show, people will feel like they are.”
The Huo Family Foundation sponsored the Impressionists on Paper: Degas to Toulouse-Lautrec exhibition with a grant of £100,000.